isleofman.com - exciting new look
This is going to be about a local issue, but no less relavant to my on-going pontification about web best practice. I hope that you'll enjoy it, even if you don't enjoy living here on The Isle of Man, as I do!
The Isle of Man nestles in between Ireland and England, and is home to major finance institutions due to it's off-shore status. Therefore, it supports a burgeoning hi-tech business community, and web design and web services has a signficant contribution. A number of web sites have sprung up, some work well enough, many more are really bad. One of the stalwarts of the island is www.isleofman.com, which is a web-site aimed at many audiences on and off the island. It forms an excellent window onto the island for the visitor and tourist, and an even better portal for the resident who needs access to local news, weather, sport or information about the island's businesses. I have had the pleasure to have had a brief contribution to the site, although this was before the recent change in ownership.
Those who know me and who read this collection of hap-hazard thoughts will know that I have a distinct idea of what counts for a quality web-site. Key words for me are simple attractive design, accessible, usable and semantic.
Let's take a look at this new site:
Very attractive, I'm sure you'll agree. As a showcase for the island, this page really looks the business .... until you look a bit closer and start to use it. The image caraousel in the middle of the screen is a Flash component, which while attractive, is actually quite difficult to use. For example, you move your mouse anywhere within the [invisible] borders of the control (including the white areas) and pictures start to fly left and right. A neat effect, but I wouldn't be expecting that if I was concentrating on clicking the useful links at the bottom of the page. Surely the images should only move when I am concentrating (and my mouse is too) on the images themselves?
Unvelievably, those lists at the bottom of the page are not lists, in the semantic sense. They are just links within tables. Such an easy opportunity missed to present semantic and accessible content to search engines and users. I could have forgiven the use of Flash on the home page if these were written semantically, ie. as a series of UL > LI's.
As you hover over the images, you wonder what is behind them, as there is no hint as to what each image is for. No text appears to give any hint. So, maybe I should click on one to find out:
Nope, still none the wiser. Those who know the island will know we have a famous association with motorsport, particularly due to the World Famous TT Road Races, which see some of the best riders race round the public roads of the island for two weeks in the year. So, you'd be forgiven for thinking that this has something to do with the TT races - well, you'd be wrong:
This is the Tourism home page. Eight attractive photographs are presented to you, which are randomly selected each page refresh - a nice touch. Looks really attractive and usable. I would then start clicking on images to see where they go, but they go nowhere. They are not links, though they feel like links into different areas of Tourism. You'll notice I caught an ALT tag on the screenshot above - which is the same ALT tag on every image. Sort of defeats the point of an ALT tag, really. So where can I go? My eyes are drawn down to the rich content of the images and I feel lost as to where the content actually is. It takes a few moments to remember there is navigation at the top of the screen to help me.
Another cheap opportunity to be semantic and accessible would be the breadcrumb. An essential navigation aid in any medium to large site, should be implemented as it is: it is a sequential list of pages who order is important. Sounds like it should be an ordered list (OL), but it isn't.
I'm not going to spend time being overly negative, but I think I have made my point. I am a bit of a purist at times, but I am also pragmatic when it comes to the difficulties of maintaining and improving large established sites. So afterwards, how do I feel about this new look?
Firstly, the site is very attractive. The designers responsible have done a very good job of revitalising a tired design, which although attractive, was less than stimulating. I really do want to explore this site to see more of it's rich colours and imagery. But, when I can't or when I feel like I am randomly being sent around the site with no hint as to what is behind each link (the home page carousel, in particular) I feel cheated and confused. Bizarrely, the carousel isn't even consistent in the lack of information. Fair enough, a sizeable chunk of those images link through to the Tourism section - but not all of them, your challenge, dear user, is to figure out which (the Manx Flag, Celtic Dancers and Louighton Sheep link to different content). This carousel really needs a text overlay on it - then it would be complete - albeit in Flash. (Have you considered Silverlight? My bet is that it will work well with your CMS as it is XML based!)
This site has always performed very well with search engines. It has a prestigious domain name (well, if you're an islander!) and is actually often mistaken for one of the Isle of Man Governments own sites as a result of this high-ranking position in search engines. (Do a Google for "Isle of Man" and it is this site not any of the government sites that hits the top spot) As I always say, your favourite user is also your most limited user. This user cannot see colour, nor can this user appreciate design. The user cannot even make any intelligent detemination as to the meaning of the text on your page. This user is Google, et al. This is one reason why accessibility is so important, not to mention the very real and relavant audience of users who do not have the capability of obtaining the same web experience as you or me. Whether blind, deaf, wearing glasses or difficulties with motor-skills, these users are just as important. So an accessible web site, using industry best practice is essential. Simple rules like avoiding tables when they are just being used to form layouts, recording correct and meaningful text alternatives to images AND links and using semantic mark-up are the basic building blocks on which to build a site. This site breaks all those rules.
Saying that, one big no-no in accessibility is opening new windows pointlessly. In viewing this site, I had the misfortune to have to sully my new laptop with Flash to have the home page work (I wouldn't bother usually, the site did work quite well without it, though it wasn't pretty) and the link to get the Flash player did not open in a new window as per accessibility guidelines. Hooray to that!
The site is a big site, and it was always going to be a difficult task to make the transition into a new design. I love the design, I love the Celtic emblems which are remninscent of the local artist Archibald Knox (and I have a sneaking suspicion who applied that mark everywhere on the site). A lot of care has gone in the little things, unfortunately, their effect is spoilt by the use of unintuitive, and uninformative navigation controls. There were a series of other bugs and spelling mistakes, but these are not important, to me. They'll get ironed out over time. While I am sad to see my own contribution to this site go (the old on-line shop software), I am pleased with it's revitalisation and wish it and the team the best of luck.